By John S. McClenahen Gross new orders of machine tools for U.S. consumption, a traditional bellwether of economic activity, rose to $162.37 million in December 2001, up 11.7% from November's mark of $145.40 million. However, December's figure was 46% below the $300.51 million consumption figure for December 2000, report AMTDA, the Rockville, Md.-based American Machine Tool Distributors' Association, and AMT -- the Association for Manufacturing Technology, McLean, Va. For the full year 2001, U.S. consumption of metal-cutting and metal-forming machines was $2.65 billion, down 34.1% from 2000's level of $4.024 billion. "December machine tool orders were indicative of a year that the machine tool industry is happy to close," says Ralph J. Nappi, AMTDA's president. "Orders of manufacturing technology equipment in 2001 were down substantially once again, posting a 55% decline from our peak in 1997," he explains. "Despite the decision by Congress to shelve the [economic] stimulus package, manufacturing indicators are not suggesting we are on the road to recovery yet," Nappi contends. "The only good news about our economy is we are likely at the bottom."